Thursday, 23 May 2013

Diary of a Provincial Lady - E. M. Delafield

"Do I know, she asks, how very late it is for indoor bulbs? September, really, or even October,  is the time. Do I know that the only really reliable firm for hyacinths is Somebody of Haarlem? Cannot catch the name of the firm, which is Dutch, but reply Yes I do know, but think it is my duty to buy Empire products. Feel at the time, and still think, that this is an excellent reply. Unfortunately Vicky comes into the drawing-room later and says: "Oh, Mummie, are those the bulbs we got at Woolworth's?"
From reading this first scene of Lady Boxe's instructions regarding forced bulb planting, I knew I was going to enjoy Diary of a Provincial Lady. I found all the scenes which involved Provincial Lady's children, Robin and Vicky, very funny, particularly when visitors drop-in unannounced and seem to be slightly horrified by the behaviour of the children and their mother's inability to prevent it.

One particular scene which really made me laugh was when the superior Miss P. and her effete friend Jahsper visit the Provincial Lady one rainy afternoon. Miss P. takes off her wet cape (hitting her friend Jahsper in the eye with a weighted corner of the garment) and proceeds to lecture on Proust and the absurdity of names derived from flowers, like Rose, Daisy, etc. Just when Provincial Lady has had enough,
"Entire situation is, however, revolutionised by totally unexpected entrance of Robin - staggering beneath my fur coat and last summer's crinoline straw hat - Henry [Robin's friend from school], draped in blue kimono, several scarfs belonging to Mademoiselle, old pair of fur gloves, with scarlet school-cap inappropriately crowning all - and Vicky, wearing nothing whatever but small pair of green silk knickerbockers and large and unfamiliar black felt hat put on at rakish angle.
Completely stunned silence overtakes us all, until Vicky, advancing with perfect aplomb, graciously says, "How do you do?" and shakes hands with Jahsper and Miss P. in turn, and I succeed in surpassing already well-established record for utter futility, by remarking that They Have Been Dressing Up.
Atmosphere becomes very, very strained indeed, only Vicky embarking on sprightly reminiscences of recent picnic, which meet with no response. Final depths of unsuccess are plumbed, when it transpires that Vicky's black sombrero, picked up in the hall, is in reality the property of Jahsper. I apologise profusely, the children giggle, Miss P. raises her eyebrows to quite unnatural heights, and gets up and looks at the book-shelves in a remote and superior way, and Jahsper says, Oh, never mind, it really is of no consequence, at the same time receiving hat with profound solicitude, and dusting it with two fingers." 
 E. M. Delafield is witty and satirical about the lives and personalities of the adults in the Diary, but her treatment, although also very funny, of the children is sympathetic and touching.

In addition to having a good laugh, I also found the book quite educational when it came to popular literary trends of the late 1920s. I was inspired to find out more about the magazine Time and Tide which Provincial Lady reads and to which she submits work. If you are interested in the history of this magazine there is a short feature available on BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour, which focuses on the magazine's founder,  the Welsh sufragette, and good friend of E. M. Delafield, Lady Rhondda. The segment is from an edition of the programme first broadcast in 2010.

The Diary was also quite useful for building a reading list of popular late twenties fiction. I found the following titles mentioned:

  • All Quiet on the Western Front - Erich Maria Remarque 1929
  • Harriet Hume - Rebecca West 1929
  • Orlando - Virginia Woolf 1928
  • The Good Companions - J. B. Priestly 1929
  • High Wind in Jamaica - Richard Hughes 1929
  • An American Tragedy - Theodore Dreiser 1925
  • Gentlemen Prefer Blondes - Anita Loos 1925
  • The Exciting Family - M. D. Hillyard 1927
  • The Edwardians - Vita Sackville-West 1930
I am not very well-read when it comes to 1920s and 1930s literature and have only read one of these titles. Which titles have you read and were they enjoyable?

At one of Lady Boxe's dinner parties, the Provincial Lady meets the author of Symphony in Three Sexes. I couldn't find this title when I searched. Does anyone know what it is? I thought it could allude to Freud's Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex 1905, or if it is meant to be fiction, maybe Lady Chatterley's Lover or The Well of Loneliness. Any help will be most appreciated.

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